A Puzzling Recovery
He’s tall and young and his head is shaved and there’s a thick undecipherable tattoo on his right arm. I might not have noticed him were he not hobbling on two red metal crutches with grips at mid arm, his legs thin and crooked, as if disjoined at the hip and broken at the knees. I stare, and I notice that his hands are twisted, fingers poorly aligned, a couple of them seemingly glued to one another. As he wobbles forward with great difficulty, I notice that he’s got a small black daypack on his chest, and a large red and white one on his back.
Slowly, he lowers both of his backpacks onto the ground and then drops the two metal canes on top of them. Fitfully, as if he will fall, he sits down. I’m ten or twelve feet away and it’s another twenty minutes or so until the bus is to leave, and I had planned to get into a story in a collection called Noir Cambodia. But it takes me all of ten long seconds to decide to approach the man sitting next to the crippled young shaved head with a tattoo on his right shoulder. I politely ask him if he’d mind sliding to his left, indicating that I want to sit next to this crippled young man who has caught my attention.
I sit and say hi and ask him where he’s going, and beyond this I say very little, until the end of the conversation when I ask him his name and he tells me it’s Adam. And I say, Maybe we’ll see each other again, and I do wish you the best. Jack, I say. Jack Bodie’s my name. My name for the next day or week, I haven’t yet decided how long I’ll play the Jack Bodie from Medford, Oregon card.
Just before Adam was about to turn twenty-three, he was playing touch football one afternoon with friends in his hometown of Seattle. He dove for a pass, landed on his side, didn’t feel anything in particular, and got up and kept playing. The following day he felt a pain just below his neck, on the spinal cord. He noticed that it had become quite swollen. Within a week he was paralyzed from the neck down, and for the next year he was confined to a wheelchair. He was diagnosed as having a generalized swelling of the spinal cord, an odd and uncommon condition, and what his doctors would identify as resulting from an auto-immune condition. But there was uncertainty in the medical diagnosis. Had the swelling been coming on for some time, and then the auto-immune problem was somehow speeded up by the fall playing touch football? Or was it really the fall and maybe not an auto-immune response after all that caused the spinal swelling? There was yet another possibility, the doctors hypothesized. Perhaps the crippling swelling had been triggered a couple of weeks before the football incident when he was playing rough rugby with friends? The doctors had to admit that they really didn’t know with any certainty what had brought on the swelling that led to systemic paralysis. And they still don’t know. They are even more puzzled by his recovery.
Adam was in the Navy for two years, stationed in a submarine in Hawaii, working as a nuclear electrician. He would have stayed in the Navy another two years but for the fact that he didn’t like working in a sub. No sun, no booze, and worst of all no women. So he got out and began to make vague plans for going to college, become a physics major, feed off the expertise he had acquired as a nuclear electrician. And then these plans came to a sudden and unexpected halt.
Because he’d been in the Navy, Adam was able to get Veteran’s benefits, and before long he was classified as being permanently disabled and thereby eligible for monthly disability payments. He also found that he was able to get further assistance from the government, what he described to me as social security benefits. The fact that one year after being confined to a wheelchair, and seemingly for life, he slowly began to regain some of the sensation in his legs and arms and hands, and to be able to hobble about, first with a walker and then later with metal canes, did not change the original classification as that of being permanently disabled. A “final verdict” had been made one year after the initial diagnosis, and while still in a wheelchair, and the bureaucratic machinery of the government, Adam says, does not have the sophistication or wherewithal—and to his obvious benefit—to change this decision in the near, or as far as he knows, distant future. This means that he will receive disability checks for the rest of his life, based on a condition that had him in in a wheelchair for what then seemed would be the rest of his life. Somewhere along this tortuous incapacitating path, Adam decided that he is “retired,” an unusual way of describing oneself when you only have a two-year work history and you are twenty-seven years old.
After Adam found that he could get about with the metal canes, he decided that he wanted to get away from the cold and rain and gray skies of Seattle. When he looked at possibilities it appeared that Thailand and Cambodia would fit his needs almost perfectly. Compared to alternatives, they seemed cheap, had plenty of sun and warm weather, and had the additional advantage of being exotic.
Adam’s been back and forth between Thailand and Cambodia off and on for the past five months, spending 29 to 30 days in each country before leaving for the other one because he gets only 30 day visas upon arrival in Cambodia and Thailand; after this period of time the cost of staying in Thailand by getting a visa extension is more than he’s willing to pay, and so the exit to Cambodia.
When Adam’s in Thailand, he prefers to spend his time in Jomtien, not far from Pattaya. Unlike Pattaya, known to many as the Sexual Disneyland of Southeast Asia, Jomtien has good beaches, plenty of guesthouses where he can stay for ten or twelve dollars a night, and enough people around his own age to carry on about music and miscellaneous travel tales the way people of his age and educational background tend to do.
I obliquely ask Adam about his sex life, wondering whether, despite his condition, he finds himself hooking up for a night or two or whatever with female backpackers. He lets me know that this isn’t on his agenda, leaving it to me to infer why, and then without prompting providing some brief notes on the sex lives of backpackers in Southeast Asia. According to Adam, it doesn’t take long after hitting a backpacker beach for any of the young travelers to hook up with someone of the opposite sex, and then stay with that person for a couple of days or weeks, even longer. They do it for what they call “the adventure,” and because by so doing one has a steady fxxk, and because a partner is assumed to be disease free after a couple of couplings unless something mysterious and unwanted happens—condoms either not on the agenda or judged to be too costly among always niggardly young road adventurers. Adam hints that this is exactly where he’d like to find himself, were he able and attractive enough to do so. He finds the big-boned and tall and often hefty young white women one often sees in Southeast Asia to his particular liking. He quite matter of factly says that he has no interest in Asian women, and the single reason, one that I’ve never before heard from a western man in all my travels in Asia, is that Asian women are too short for him. He’s six-two. They just don’t have enough leg, he explains.
(Okay, I now understand his preference for western women. But how could I not bring to mind the thought that he probably would not have all that much trouble getting an Asian woman his age to accommodate his sexual needs, and probably without having to pay for her. Or at least not as much as the great majority of foreign men have to pay to get laid, unless working Internet dating sites—and then they’re paying, by other means, for sure. And—my mind following the thought more or less to its logical conclusion—the Asian woman would have the advantage of being small: five feet to five three or four, and rarely much taller. And probably weighing no more than 100 or 110 pounds, not an American or Australian or European 150 and above, and with long legs and sometimes enough thigh to make a man with yellow fever think of Sumo wrestlers. So, were Adam to open his mind a bit and be realistic about his condition, he’d temporarily shelve his bias against Asian women and, if she didn’t already know how, teach her how to go cowgirl—every small and smart Asian girl’s solution to going with a fat man, and every woman’s way to keep an oversized mad dog dick under control. Then, among other things, Adam could have the very thing that he couldn’t have when on a Navy sub, and in spite of a condition that is the envy of no man or woman at any age.)
In our one-way conversation, Adam goes on to describe three of the well-known beaches in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and how they tend to self-segregate: one for the very young crowd—teenagers and early twenties; another for the older backpacker crowd; and a third for couples, age not a determining factor as such in the latter grouping, he claims. I know the beaches that he describes and characterizes, I have just not spent enough time at any of them to neatly categorize them by age and coupling criteria.
Does Adam like Cambodia?
It’s okay, he says. Just dirty. There’s too much garbage about that never gets picked up.
This is a common complaint about Cambodia, but one that misses the most crucial point about a country that so attracts me and others who have spent time in Southeast Asia: Cambodians are people who seem kind, and gentle, and genuine, and who on the whole lack all of those obvious predatory traits that turn me and others away from Vietnam and Thailand, a country that of late I’ve heard described not as LOS or the Land of Smiles, but as the Land of Lies. We all lie, it’s just that the Thais have perfected the art of lying the same way hi-so women so deftly bring a cigarette to their pencil-thin lips. The Thais have made lying a defining national characteristic, one that they attempt to rescue now and again through the emphasis they place on “face” and always wanting to be agreeable.
Adam doesn’t seem to be much of a weed or other drug aficionado. Or so he says, maybe not sure who he’s talking to, someone obviously much older and perhaps even straight, but for the head shaved by the same barber and the trim beard that brings on more questions than easy conclusions to a half discerning eye. At any rate, just getting his fill of the sun and the beaches and getting out of Seattle, and being able to live so cheaply now that he’s retired and may soon be walking again, is enough reason for Adam to stay in this part of the world for at least several more months, or longer.
As for the future; maybe he’ll go to college and pursue a degree in physics. He can do that because, as he reminds me before leaving to get to his bus, he was a nuclear electrician in the Navy. I don’t ask him how much math he’s had, or how familiar he is with the demands of being a student in the hard sciences, for the one thing I’ve learned about men who have been in the military and whose paths I have crossed in my travels—and there have been many of them–is that whatever that time in uniform does to men who rarely have more than a high school education, the one thing it does give to many of them is enormous confidence and even bald-faced arrogance about what they think they can accomplish. Perhaps herein lies part of the puzzle of the very puzzling recovery that Adam has made that his doctors only partially understand. Don’t ask a doctor what’s up when it comes to the mysteries of the human mind.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia (4/22/13)
Phnom Penh hotel
Very nice! Adam sounds quite distinctive and given the areas he tends to frequent are popular wit the Stickman community, so I wonder if other readers have come across him?